When it comes to musical biopics – meaning biopics that focus on individuals known for being musicians, instead of biopics that also happen to be musicals – they all generally have the same plot structure: humble beginnings; unmitigated ambition in the face of public skepticism; widespread critical and cultural success; a change in character and attitude in response to fame; developing a biological or emotional addiction; ostracizing everyone that’s actually important; hitting rock bottom; atoning for prior sins; and sometimes dying. I’d say spoiler alert for the roughly two dozen movies I just described, but you can’t exactly spoil history, can you? Even people with a base knowledge of Queen know Freddie Mercury, and know of his flamboyant personality and for being one of the most notable people to fall victim to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. And if you’re looking forward to Bohemian Rhapsody because you want to learn some of the finer details of his life, you’ll be happy to find out that he… liked cats. A lot. And that’s about it. Sure, the film has a general grasp of who he was and the struggles he went through, but it doesn’t seem to be able to put it into words, or answer any of its own questions for that matter. And even though the film clocks in at 134 minutes, the only revelation that it comes to was that he was a tortured genius who was gone too soon. Yeah. Profound stuff there. If you follow movie news, you’ll know that this particular biopic has been gestating for the better part of a decade, originally lining up Sacha Baron Cohen to star in what would have been a hard-R take that would not have shied away from the more adult aspects of Mercury’s life that are now public knowledge. Well, even though everyone and their moms deemed the casting perfect, it was not to be as the surviving members of Queen disagreed with that particular artistic vision and so Cohen departed the project. And how anticlimactic is it that after years of presuming the finished film could be nothing more than watered-down and tame as a result, we learn that it is exactly that. Generic. Even though Freddie Mercury was nothing of the kind. But, if you’re 20th Century Fox, you’re laughing all the way to the bank seeing as it’s now the number one movie in the world. So in a time when movies like Logan stay true to their protagonists by going R and are lauded for it and financially successful regardless, the antithesis also proves true, that you can still make a killing by playing it safe and challenging nobody. That said, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t by any means a disaster. You still get to marvel at the central performance by Rami Malek, who totally makes you buy his transformation into Mercury despite the obvious teeth implants and lip synching. And yes, technically that’s all general audiences want; a believable portrayal of the icon in question and plenty of nostalgic songs to tap your toes to. Still, it can’t help but scream mediocrity, making satires the likes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story all the more germane more than a decade later. And though the general orientation for the tone was off to begin with, I can’t help but blame director Bryan Singer for keeping this from being at the very least decent, as he once again proves himself the king of blandness with very little interest in making a dynamic picture. Granted, it could have been worse – hell, it could have been All Eyez on Me – but it could have been, nay, should have been, so much better.
Talking place in the 1970s and 1980s, Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of Farrokh Bulsara a.k.a. Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), an Indian-British college student, whose unconventional mouth and teeth give him a greater propensity for singing. One night, he catches a show by a band called Smile, and afterwards approaches guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), only to learn that their bassist / lead vocalist has quit. While Freddie doesn’t play bass, he offers to take over the reigns as lead singer. He’s accepted, as the trio then bring on bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and rechristen themselves as Queen. Soon thereafter, Freddie’s success leads him to striking up a relationship turned engagement with one Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Due to their unorthodox musical style and ability to constantly reinvent themselves, Queen begins to rise the charts, their stardom becoming supersonic. And the more they improve, the more Freddie embraces the rock lifestyle. When his relationship with Mary falters as a result of this and his evolving sexuality, Freddie enters a stage of depression when he questions whether people can actually know him for the man he really is. He’ll have to reconnect with his passion for music and the people who believed in him from the start if he’s to find out.
Yeah, pretty standard stuff there. I know it’s pretty old hat to say a biopic merely hits various bullet points on its way to completing what is essentially a filmic PowerPoint presentation, but Bohemian Rhapsody does that exactly. Instead of commenting on this extraordinary life lived by this unordinary man, it simply presents it matter-of-factly with all the reenactment of America’s Most Wanted. Granted, if you wanted the scenes of how they met, how they found their voice, how they squabbled, they’ve got ’em, but damned if there’s nothing behind the music, so to speak. And when it finally comes time for Freddie to show the pathos that’s been hibernating within him for so many years, it feels hollow and undeserved, almost like they’re providing the punchline without any setup. The film claims that Freddie felt alone and unknown to basically everyone, but the sad thing is is that the filmmakers themselves don’t really know who he was. Sure, they provide a simulacrum that looks and sounds and acts like Freddie Mercury, but never does the story turn that into anything raw and real. Instead, scene after scene we’re presented with a paint-by-numbers interpretation that thinks a series of recognizable songs punctuated by snappy dialogue is enough to get people on their side. Of course, they’re right, judging by the box office numbers and casual audience approval, but never do they do justice to Freddie Mercury as a person by portraying him as a flesh-and-blood human being. I look back on biopics like Love & Mercy and Steve Jobs – the former about Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, the latter pretty self-explanatory – as being films that not only presented their subjects as both exceptional and flawed, but crafted a unique narrative that served to elucidate viewers on the man behind the persona, eschewing the drab, book-report formula. But, the proof’s in the pudding, as neither of those films performed well financially, so, here we are.
And only adding to the flavorlessness is Bryan Singer, who hasn’t been able to make a good film this century unless it had superheroes in it to distract the audience of his dispassion. Having said that, I can see why the studio hired him to make their vision, he being essentially a utility man with experience dealing in big-budgeted spectacle. Because don’t let the genre fool you, they put a lot of money into the technical aspects of the film, likely for all the concert recreations, particularly an extended one toward the end that goes on for what feels like fifteen minutes. While it certainly makes the movie feel big – for lack of a better word – it also makes it look fake, the special effects done on the crowds being nothing in comparison to the old-fashioned approach of wrangling 72,000 extras and mounting a camera on a helicopter. Not only that, but there are whole dialogue scenes that are filmed entirely on a green screen, thus removing the veil of verisimilitude like that (snaps finger). Seriously, I know it’s cheaper, but between Singer and say Matthew Vaughn – an actually good director – I don’t know why people are so against simply filming outside these days. Well, it would seem that Singer’s involvement was fortunately limited to some degree upon getting fired a couple months into production due to absentia, depending on who you believe, that is. Eddie the Eagle director Dexter Fletcher was brought on to replace Singer and complete the production, Fletcher having been at one point attached to the project years before. And judging by his aforementioned film, I would have rather liked to see his take. But alas, the change in directors made no discernible difference in style, Bohemian Rhapsody still having Singer’s signature style – or lack thereof – Fletcher doing a good job of emulating it.
Still, let it not be said that the actors didn’t show up to work, as Malek and company are sublime. While he likely won’t be an awards contender due to the shortcomings of the film as a whole, this is absolutely the Rami Malek show, and the perfect vehicle for his talents. He’s been on quite the meteoric rise in recent years, garnering acclaim for his turn in Mr. Robot and supporting roles in various esteemed films. And it’s only fitting that this should be the ostensible apex of his climb, coming a long way from being known as the Pharaoh in the Night at the Museum movies. Also worth mentioning is Lucy Boynton as Malek’s love interest, who had her breakout role in another music-centric film Sing Street, which if you haven’t seen yet, stop reading this right now and check it out. And for those of you jazzed to see Mike Myers back on the big screen for the first time since Inglourious Basterds, you’ll probably dig it if you can recognize him. But if you don’t dig it, you’ll probably wind up questioning his involvement like me, especially in light of a certain Wayne’s World reference that feels so shoehorned in that I’m surprised it didn’t come with a laugh track.
Even though I pretty much hate what this movie stands for and how it represents Hollywood at its most cynical, it’s not an outright bad movie. Freddie Mercury was such a dynamic individual and his rapport with his bandmates is so interesting on its own that even at its worst Bohemian Rhapsody is still entertaining. Its whimsicality shines through in such montages that show Queen inventing new ways to make music, but on the whole the story is so trite and unoriginal that the whole experience can be boiled down to a bunch of blah. It’s pretty much destined to become this year’s The Greatest Showman – a movie with the same problems and then some – but that doesn’t mean it has anything interesting to say. At the end of the day, if I wanted a nostalgia kick from Queen, I’d just download a greatest hits album from iTunes.
Final Score: 5/10